Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapters 4-5, The Kitchen and The Scullery and Larder


In Chapter IV (“The Kitchen”), Bill Bryson narrates the processes of preserving, preparing, and eating food in the historical home. As Nicole discussed in our last entry, both the timeframe and class of Bryson’s “home” is somewhat ambiguous, although he generally returns to middle- and upper-class Victorians. In Chapter V (“The Scullery and Larder”), we enter the world of household servants. Bryson revels in narrating the oppressive conditions of servant life. Don’t get me wrong, like most other modern individuals, I am more sympathetic with servants than masters (see for example, certain entries on my own blog). But Bryson obscures something when he presents servants as defenseless and exploited and masters as naively incompetent at best and malicious at worst. The secret here is that many households were something like small businesses. As some readers may know, a recent Masterpiece Theatre series, Downton Abbey, highlighted the upstairs-downstairs dimension of English country house life in the Edwardian period. Such households relied upon as well as supported the work of many individuals. And while the master was certainly the biggest beneficiary of a household’s functions, he was also intimately symbiotic with his servants. Yes, a master’s fortune might enable a lavish and sometimes extravagant lifestyle, but it also supported the livelihoods of many others. This was how it had been in England for centuries, with a manor house forming the nucleus of complex networks of production and consumption. Into the Victorian age, the relationship of masters and servants continued to be one of close interdependence. Until later technological and social revolutions enabled more people to live independently, the wealthy household was the workshop of many servants. But it was also their home.


I mentioned in some of my earlier posts about At Home that Bryson’s study gives me a popular touchstone for comparing the American history of “private” life. In chapters 4-5, Bryson presents readers with a supposedly American perspective, but his perspective is limited to one individual serving as a representative of the entire country: Thomas Jefferson. I’m not sure why Bryson suddenly integrates this particular founding father as the token gardener and slaveholder, but the resulting perspective is grossly trivialized and oversimplified. In “The Kitchen,” we learn that Jefferson was not only “the author of the Declaration of Independence” but “also the father of the American French fry” (80). In “The Scullery and Larder,” we learn that work completed by servants in England was often completed by enslaved individuals in America. Jefferson, we learn, “owned more than two hundred slaves” (109). If Bryson’s goal was to be more comprehensive with his American perspective, he might have done better to include some anecdotes about Elizabeth Drinker’s diary, for example.1 Drinker was a wealthy Philadelphian whose mid-late eighteenth-century diary is a treasure trove including insight into many aspects of daily life, including servants. Of course, Bryson’s British perspective might have spurred him to focus on more internationally known figures such as Jefferson.

In any case, these two chapters are not lacking in entertaining details. For example, Bryson discusses one woman, Hannah Cullwick , who worked as a servant for the man to whom she was secretly married. If that isn’t odd enough, there are extant photos of her taken by her husband. In three, she is pictured in the midst of her daily tasks. In a fourth, she is posed topless as a chimney sweep wearing a lock and chain around her neck (106). Perhaps Cullwick is well-known to those who study British cultural and social history, but she was new to this Americanist. As off the wall as anecdotes such as the Cullwick story seem, they show readers the interpretive potential seemingly mundane topics such as the history of private life hold for writers such as Bryson.


1. The in-text link is to an abridged version of Drinker’s diary. I suggest that you read it in its entirety if you can.

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